How to be One of the Twitterati

Frances Weaver introduces a new monthly column about the internet

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Tweeting, twitter wit, twitter-peeking, co-tweets: sounds like baby-talk, but if you want to keep up with what’s going on online, this is what you’re expected to understand. And all because of Twitter. Some thought that Twitter was just the latest fad that would have its 15 minutes of fame and then fade slowly away. But Twitter is proving to have the endurance of Facebook, a site used by 200 million people. 

For technophobes, here’s an idiot’s guide: Twitter is a micro-blogging website (for extreme technophobes, a blog, or “web-log”, is an online commentary on events) where users send and receive messages, known as tweets, of up to 140 characters. If there are any particular friends/celebrities/journals that the user wants to “follow”, they can be updated every time they tweet. Standpoint has got in on the action — just follow the user “StandpointMag” on our website. 

What seemed like yet another forum for extremely boring and self-publicising individuals has developed into a website with huge influence. Although there are still millions who tweet in detail what they had for breakfast, Twitter has changed the way journalism works. It has snatched “breaking news” away from broadcasters and given it back to anyone who’s on Twitter.

Think of the Hudson River plane crash last January, which first broke on Twitter as witnesses and even passengers tweeted pictures and comments about the event, around 15 minutes before mainstream broadcasters reported the story. This immediacy and accessibility, heightened by an ability to tweet via mobile phone, has its pitfalls. Tweeters can spread rumours without fear of reprimand, as they have done when erroneously declaring the deaths of celebrities such as Kanye West.

But Twitter hasn’t only affected news journalism. Showbiz journalism has had to change too. Previously, people could get insights into a celebrity’s life by reading about them and looking at paparazzi photographs. Now, Lily Allen will post a picture of herself and Kate Moss on a yacht in St Tropez and anyone on Twitter can see it for nothing. 

Journalists also use the site as a means of boosting their profiles and work, as Standpoint‘s Jessica Duchen does: Jessica’s blog last month on opera programmes got a fantastic response on Twitter. Even comedians compete to impress the Twitter audience by displaying their wit in only 140 characters. Jimmy Carr tweeted: “On the radio they said the CWU were sent a letter by Royal Mail executives aimed at averting a postal strike. Probably didn’t get delivered.” 

But most importantly, Twitter also promotes those causes that wouldn’t usually receive much coverage, such as a Carter-Ruck injunction against the Guardian. Joshua Rozenberg was one of the first to break the story on his Standpoint blog, and within hours it was one of the most talked-about issues on Twitter. 

But when the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir complained that she was the victim of an “orchestrated campaign” after a controversial column about the late pop singer Stephen Gateley, she displayed her lack of understanding of Twitter. Yes, there are prominent tweeters — the “twitterati” (think Stephen Fry) — who influence what people are talking about, but the point is that Twitter works on moments of spontaneous people power, when users quickly tweet brief comments about something they’re passionate about. Sometimes, these can be tweets of great importance, such as from people involved in the Iranian protests. At other times, the top ten topics on Twitter can be trivial: the new Twilight film or the latest X Factor result. Either way, Twitter is a news force to be reckoned with.